This is a guest post by Latanya Mapp Frett, Executive Director of Planned Parenthood Global, the international arm of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
Zahra, a teenage Muslim girl living in Northern Nigeria, fought back tears as she recently addressed a crowd in Senegal about an unlikely transformation her father had undergone.
“My father is supportive of my use of contraception,” she said. Furthermore, “he supports my counseling and providing condoms and other [contraceptive] methods to my peers.”
Zahra’s father’s position is unique in her conservative community, which has some of the highest rates of child marriage in the world and where less than half of all female adolescents receive sexuality education of any kind. Her father’s acceptance came only after Zahra’s mother died from complications related to HIV/AIDS, leaving her family devastated—and leaving Zahra responsible for rearing her siblings.
It is hard to imagine the circumstances that Zahra must face as a young woman in her country today. She is vulnerable to abductions that are carried out by the militant terrorists of Boko Haram. But she faces other challenges as well. She is under immense pressure to marry and start a family; she must share in the financial upkeep of her family, necessitating work both inside and outside the home; she has few opportunities to continue her education; and, she wrestles with the same interests, desires, and concerns as many teenage girls living in our modern era.
After the death of her mother, Zahra knew that she wanted to do everything she could to prevent her fate from befalling others. Zahra became a Youth Peer Provider (YPP) with Planned Parenthood Global’s partner organization NKST, a faith-based group that runs health centers and community education campaigns. NKST trains young people as community health workers to serve peers in their own communities—increasing knowledge, dispelling myths, changing social norms, and promoting healthy behaviors. YPPs go one step beyond traditional youth peer educators by providing not only education but also contraceptive products and services where they might not otherwise be available. They also advocate that their governments—in Zahra’s case, it was the Nigerian health ministry—expand access and support for sexual and reproductive health services in their communities.
As a result of such advocacy, the Nigerian government recently launched new guidelines in Nigeria calling for the inclusion of youth-friendly services in government-run primary health facilities. Planned Parenthood Global worked in partnership with the government to shape and to launch this landmark policy, and continues to work to create youth-friendly materials as resources for these government health facilities, many of which will now be offering youth-friendly services for the first time. Currently, most services designed specifically to meet young people’s needs are operated by private, non-governmental health facilities, but the new guidelines aim to change that and mark an important step in granting Nigerian youth today greater access to sexual and reproductive health services.
More young people in Nigeria now have access to health and especially sexual and reproductive health information and care than before. They are thereby able to make healthier choices and lead healthier lives. It is to be hoped that the newly elected administration will also value these principles to protect and encourage young people and their futures.